Album Title: Lionheart
Label: Napalm Records
Date Of Release: 27 October 2017
A short 21 months since the release of ‘Codex Atlanticus’, Austria’s Serenity return with their sixth album of symphonic melodic power metal, ‘Lionheart’. In my review of ‘Codex…’, I referred to Serenity as ‘one of my very favourites within the melodic metal subgenre’. And, having spent a good few weeks with ‘Lionheart’, I see absolutely no reason to change my opinion. In fact, if anything, my admiration of the quartet has grown even stronger as ‘Lionheart’ might just have asserted itself as the best Serenity album yet.
With a history lecturer as their lead vocalist and lyricist, it comes as no surprise to learn that ‘Lionheart’ once again takes us on a journey back in time to explore the events of yore. As the title of this album suggests, album six has decided to focus on Richard I, king of England between 1157 and 1199. Known as ‘Cœur de Lion’ or, more commonly in the modern age ‘Richard the Lionheart’, he was a great military commander and central to the Third Crusade, an attempt to spread Christianity into the Muslim Middle East.
I don’t profess to be a scholar of historical events but as someone who has a genuine interest in history, I find the subject matter of ‘Lionheart’ really quite absorbing. With a smattering of female vocals (‘Heaven’, ‘The Final Crusade’) and the occasional interjection of gruff growls (‘The Final Crusade’), Georg Neuhauser delivers his musical lectures with passion and conviction with his now-familiar and distinctive voice. Undimmed by years of touring and sending students to sleep from behind a lectern, his voice remains rich and vibrant with an impressive range, the perfect foil to the pomp and bombast beneath and surrounding him courtesy of guitarist Cris Hermsdörfer, bassist Fabio D’Amore and drummer Andreas Schipflinger.
Whilst the lyrical content might not surprise you, what might raise an eyebrow is the increased heaviness of the material on ‘Lionheart’. A criticism often levelled at symphonic power metal is that it can be a little lacking in the metal element. Not so here. ‘Lionheart’ is probably the most guitar-driven record in the band’s history and it sounds utterly glorious. The tone is muscular, full of crunch and potent. Alongside the crisp, meaty drumming of Schipflinger and the satisfying rumble of D’Amore’s bass, it is a recipe for success and so it proves.
When I heard the lead single, the title track, I immediately liked the increased muscularity but I felt just a little underwhelmed by the chorus and the melodies. Known for their catchy, bombastic anthems, I didn’t initially feel like it hit the mark as strongly as I had hoped. Not for the first time, I was to be betrayed by my initial instincts because any misgivings I had at the outset have been well and truly expunged now that I have had time to digest the entire record.
First off, ‘Lionheart’ is an album that is remarkably consistent. There a genuinely no duff tracks, no let-up in the quality and the 13 songs that span a hefty 54 or so minutes literally fly by. And what’s more, I feel so good when this record is playing. The lyrics are not all sweetness and light by any means – you’d not expect them to be under the circumstances. But the Serenity recipe means that the end result is one that hits that sweet spot with me and is likely to do the same for many others who enjoy their metal on the more melodic end of the spectrum.
If you’re not suitably roused by the pomp and grandiosity of the dramatic, cinematic intro instrumental ‘Deus Lo Vult’, then I’m afraid there’s little hope for you. Flags and banners snapping in the breeze, this is the kind of music to take you into battle.
‘United’ follows smoothly and within a few moments, you can hear the increased purpose from Hermsdörfer’s guitar. But just shy of the minute mark, this is further underlined with a thoroughly dirty and groovy riff that’s marvellous. The chorus increases the symphonic element for which Serenity have become known and there are some chanted choir vocals that will get lapped up in the live arena. The combination of symphonics and the urgent double-pedal drumming of Andreas Schipflinger works really well in the chorus, enhanced by some commanding bass playing from D’Amore. Then there is the lead guitar work which again reminds us that Hermsdörfer wants to make an increased impact on ‘Lionheart’.
The aforementioned title track is a genuine grower. Once again the chorus is a heady cocktail of frenetic double-pedal drumming and bold cinematic symphonics that took its time to wheedle itself into my affections. But now, it is fast becoming a favourite, such is its many subtle and not-so-subtle charms.
‘Hero’ begins with arguably the heaviest, most no-nonsense riff that the band has ever committed to a record. It is less melodic metal and more extreme metal in tone and delivery. However, despite more prominent guitar work throughout the entire track, the melodies return and the chorus is huge. The slower, quieter and more solemn section after the half-way mark is sublime, changing the dynamic of the track to great effect in the process.
As I have said before, there isn’t a poor song on ‘Lionheart’ but I couldn’t possibly dissect each of the 13 tracks individually. Instead, I will highlight a few more of my favourites.
On that score, I have to mention the delightful ‘Heaven’, a mournful and sombre ballad with some irresistible melodies that builds from quiet synth-led foundations to a spine-tingling crescendo. The female vocals of German singer Katia Moslehner are a welcome touch, especially when she duets passionately with Neuhauser after more wailing six-string flamboyance.
Interludes are normally seen as an unnecessary extravagance, but the short piano-led instrumental entitled ‘King’s Landing’ is stunning thanks to a very powerful central melody that really speaks to me.
I love all of the traditional instrumental embellishments that appear throughout the album. They provide a touch of authenticity and context to aid the lyrical content, whilst injecting a folky and slightly Celtic edge to the music. The intro to the compelling ‘Eternal Victory’ is one such striking example, alongside the closing military-esque moments to ‘Lionheart’.
As the title suggests, ‘Stand And Fight’, is a ‘call to arms’ anthem of huge proportions, whilst ‘The Fortress (Blood and Sand)’ introduces Middle Eastern flavour within a composition that offers a relentless stomping tempo to get heads banging and fists pumping.
I can’t help but get swept up in the subtle AOR sheen within the chorus of ‘My Fantasy’, not to mention the bold juxtaposition between quiet introspection and huge, menacing riffing. It is a song of stark contrasts that come together beautifully to create a compelling listening experience.
And yet, as seems to be the Serenity way, they save the best to last. ‘The Final Crusade’ is epic in every sense of the word, from the precise acoustic guitar opening, to the monumental chorus and from the guest vocals of Federica Lanna and the smattering of savage gruff vocals to the absolutely stunning closing crescendo. As we near the end of the year, I can say with certainty that this is one of my favourite songs of 2017. It is so poignant on the one hand yet so dramatically powerful on the other, it is truly sensational.
I have always been a fan of Serenity but with ‘Lionheart’, this incredible band has pushed my admiration into the realms of complete adoration. This record is nothing short of a melodic symphonic metal masterpiece, where the symphonics are dialled up to ten and the metal quota is ratcheted up to eleven. For me, that’s the perfect combination.
The Score Of Much Metal: 9.75
If you’ve enjoyed this review, you can check out my others from previous years and for 2017 right here:
Sorcerer – The Crowning of the Fire King
Daydream XI – The Circus of the Tattered and Torn
CyHra – Letters To Myself
Devoid – Cup of Tears
Ne Obliviscaris – Urn
Sons Of Apollo – Psychotic Symphony
Enslaved – E
Samael – Hegemony
Vuur – In This Moment We Are Free – Cities
Power Quest – Sixth Dimension
Iris Divine – The Static And The Noise
Daniel Cavanagh – Monochrome
White Moth Black Butterfly – Atone
Jag Panzer – The Deviant Chord
Vulture Industries – Stranger Times
Anubis Gate – Covered In Black
Protean Collective – Collapse
Cradle Of Filth – Cryproriana – The Seductiveness of Decay
TDW & Dreamwalkers Inc. – The Antithetic Affiliation
Caligula’s Horse – In Contact
Nocturnal Rites – Phoenix
Arch Enemy – Will To Power
Threshold – Legends Of The Shires
H.E.A.T – Into The Great Unknown
Dyscarnate – With All Their Might
Subterranean Masquerade – Vagabond
Adagio – Life
Paradise Lost – Medusa
The Haunted – Strength In Numbers
Serious Black – Magic
Leprous – Malina
The Lurking Fear – Out of the Voiceless Grave
Prospekt – The Illuminated Sky
Wintersun – The Forest Seasons
Witherfall – Nocturnes And Requiems
Tuesday The Sky – Drift
Anthriel – Transcendence
Decapitated – Anticult
Cosmograf – The Hay-Man Dreams
Orden Ogan – Gunmen
Iced Earth – Incorruptible
Anathema – The Optimist
Solstafir – Berdreyminn
Dream Evil – Six
Avatarium – Hurricanes And Halos
Ayreon – The Source
Until Rain – Inure
MindMaze – Resolve
God Dethroned – The World Ablaze
Bjorn Riis – Forever Comes To An End
Voyager – Ghost Mile
Big Big Train – Grimspound
Lonely Robot – The Big Dream
Firespawn – The Reprobate
Pyramaze – Contingent
Shores Of Null – Black Drapes For Tomorrow
Asira – Efference
Hologram Earth – Black Cell Program
Damnations Day – A World Awakens
Memoriam – For The Fallen
Pallbearer – Heartless
Sleepmakeswaves – Made of Breath Only
Ghost Ship Octavius – Ghost Ship Octavius
Vangough – Warpaint
Telepathy – Tempest
Obituary – Obituary
Fen – Winter
Havok – Conformicide
Wolfheart – Tyhjyys
Svart Crown – Abreaction
Nova Collective – The Further Side
Immolation – Atonement
The Mute Gods – Tardigrades Will Inherit The Earth
Ex Deo – The Immortal Wars
Pyogenesis – A Kingdom To Disappear
My Soliloquy – Engines of Gravity
Nailed To Obscurity – King Delusion
Helion Prime – Helion Prime
Battle Beast – Bringer Of Pain
Persefone – Aathma
Soen – Lykaia
Exquirla – Para Quienes Aun Viven
Odd Logic – Effigy
Mors Principium Est – Embers Of A Dying World
Firewind – Immortals
Slyde – Back Again EP
Sepultura – Machine Messiah
Deserted Fear – Dead Shores Rising
Kreator – Gods Of Violence
Borealis – World of Silence MMXVII
Pain of Salvation – In The Passing Light of Day